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Pet pursuits

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Animal companions are not just a source of unbridled joy and love, but have therapeutic value in silver years, writes Irfan Syed

 
They got us bonding again,” says Benedict Gnaniah aka Benny, pointing to Indies Mulan and Leia, aged 2.5 years and 1 year respectively, adopted from the streets. “Thanks to voracious reading, we are a strong-headed family,” explains the 59 year-old, whose duplex in Chennai is a bibliophile’s delight. Even the pets, named after strong mythical/fictional women characters, are testament to the family’s literary inclinations. “Before they entered our lives, heated discussions at the dining table stressed us out,” reveals Benny. Now, the canines are the centre of attention, featuring in dining table conversations daily. “Oh, she did this today…”, “She doesn’t look good to me…”, “Man, they are becoming a handful…” The dogs, quite simply, got them warmed up again as a family.

Whether it is a lofty purpose as in the case of Benny, or everyday benefits such as companionship, security and unconditional love, pets can add a lot—physically, emotionally and mentally—to a silver’s life.

Though the benefits of the human-animal bond have been documented for years, emerging research suggests that pets have the ability to boost general health and well-being, especially in silvers. Studies show that just 15 minutes spent bonding with an animal promotes hormonal changes within the brain. Stress levels drop as the brain produces serotonin—the ‘feel-good’ hormone—along with prolactin and oxytocin. It has also been established that silvers who are active and always around others, or who own a pet, decline in health far less rapidly than those who are isolated or depressed.

Affirming this is the American Heart Association, which observes that when it comes to healthcare, going to the dogs is indeed beneficial. The association claims that time spent with man’s best friend by hospitalised heart failure patients improves heart and lung functions by lowering pressure, diminishing release of harmful hormones and decreasing anxiety. Interestingly, the benefits in these cases exceeded those that resulted from a visit by a human volunteer or from the patient being left alone.

Researchers are also digging up evidence that pets can boost the mental health of people suffering from challenging disorders. Subsequently, clinics are opening their doors to animal-assisted intervention or pet therapy alongside conventional treatment. The rise of animal therapy is backed by scientific study showing that social support can indeed come on four legs. The profound acceptance and love of pets, along with non-verbal communication, can be soothing for those having difficulty in using language such as dementia patients. To quote writer George Eliot, “Animals are such agreeable friends—they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.” No wonder, pets are considered all-weather friends.

Have pet, will not fret

 
Pune resident Shilpa Mahajani, 50, thinks back to the time when her bungalow was undergoing renovation and didn’t have a front door for almost six months. No intruder could dare come in, thanks to the family’s full-grown Dobermans. Since then, the male, Raja, passed away, while the female, Rani, remains, and the door has been reinstated. Rani now roams the compound, each stride an intimidating one to any newcomer at the gate.

For pet parents, the animals are an endless loop of love. Deanne Menon, 59, Mumbai, finds it de-stressing to get back home after a hard day’s work: waiting for her is Lakshmibai aka Lakshmi aka Laku, an Indie adopted from the road as a pup 14 years ago, who jumps all over Menon, smothering her with love.

When Bhupinder Singh Bagga, 63, too gets back to his three-floored house in Kanpur, he is greeted by Caddie, who runs around unable to contain her excitement; she comes up to him, licks his hand and face and runs back, repeating the run-lick routine till she is satiated.

Bagga, however, holds that you don’t bring home an animal only for the love they give; you do so for the love you can give them as well. The Bagga household has two Indies. Along with Caddie, who stays more at home, there is Buddy, who is more of a visitor. Bagga describes the situation Bollywood style, “Caddie hai ghar ki rani [queen of home], Buddy hai sadkon ka raja [king of roads].” The two canines came in courtesy his elder son Kamaldeep, who is vegan and works for animal welfare.

Another vegan activist, Malvika Kalra, 54, based in Jammu Tawi, puts it succinctly: “Dogs or any other kind of animal companions are about one simple thing: unconditional love.” When asked to express in one word or line what their animal companions mean to them, we had our silvers gushing.

Meanwhile, Nicole Rego, veterinarian of 14 years, attests to the joy pets infuse in silvers. She has had quite a few clients coming to her Mumbai clinic over the years, and has witnessed at close quarters the amiable companionship quadrupeds offer bipeds. Pets also help silvers get over the empty-nest syndrome, common in these times of nuclear families and urbanisation.

With her husband having passed away and children settled in Bengaluru, Selma Pinto, a spry 63, lives by herself in Mysuru, along with four cats and one dog. Apart from tending to her pets, she also feeds the crows and monkeys that come near her kitchen and kites that hover above her house. Empty nest? No, more like a full house brimming with fuzzy bodies and fuzzier feelings.

Now, these warm moments can be captured and framed for posterity, thanks to photographers such as Bhavesh Karia, who specialise in pet portraits.

Beyond petting

 
Incidentally, having a pet around could be quite demanding with the need for regular walks and exercise, doctor visits, food, etc. Facing some of these challenges themselves, are silvers up to the task of tending to their four-legged companions?

Benny says his dogs have taught him discipline. Now he needs to rise on time, take them for a walk and be back from work on time. Moreover, as Leia can’t handle carbohydrates, he has to make special food for her on Sundays, which he stores in the fridge for the week ahead. “Our fridge belongs to the dogs,” he adds, matter of fact.

Almost everybody Harmony-Celebrate Age spoke to said vet visits are scheduled and regular. Mahajani provided sagely advice: “Go to a good vet. It might cost more, but the diagnosis will be right the first time, costing you less time, energy and effort in the long run.”

Once you bring home a companion animal, taking off on your own becomes a bit challenging. For instance, Pinto hasn’t really taken a vacation since the menagerie of animals took up residence at her place. At the most, she has gone away for a day or two, with a neighbour checking in on the animals while she was away.

The reluctance of pet parents to leave their babies alone comes from the separation anxiety the latter face when left on their own. They can get worried and irritable, triggering off their notorious rip-and-tear sessions. The Baggas and the Mahajanis have had their share of dog nipping, while Benny has had his older dog, Mulan, biting his shoes, in anxiety.

The Mitras—Ashoke, 63 and Madhavi, 53—earlier based in Mumbai but now spending more time in their house on the outskirts of Pune, recount the time they left their beloved Sweety, a Lhasa-Poodle mix, in the care of Ashoke’s mother for a short holiday to Mahabaleshwar. The matriarch had insisted they do so, to allow for some level of detachment between the dog and the couple. When they called up home, they were told Sweety hadn’t eaten anything since they left. The distraught couple asked Sweety to be put on speakerphone and were able to pacify her to some extent. The following afternoon, they took the first bus home.

So, do pets limit your movement? Our pet parents vouch that the boundless love they bring in more than makes up for the rest.

Choose with care

 
Should you head out to the nearest pet shop or breeder and bring home a furry bundle of joy? Rego bats in favour of cats as ideal pets for silvers, as they are highly independent and are low on maintenance. “But if your heart is really set on a dog, bring home a small breed,” she says. “With silvers having enough anxieties of losing balance in a bathroom, the last thing they want is to handle a 25-kg, four-footed, adolescent animal jumping on them in unshackled excitement.”

The Mahajanis and Mitras both have small breeds now, Min Pins (Miniature Pinschers) and Spritzes respectively. Benny, Pinto, Kalra and the Baggas have Indies, better suited to Indian conditions and independent by nature.

Kalra’s Indie Razia stays put in her husband’s office. In the past, Kalra has had four home dogs at various times in her life, with all of them eventually passing on. The last, a Lab named Ralph, developed problems walking, thanks to doing so on a concrete floor, which isn’t the animal’s natural terrain. Besides that, years of consuming cow’s milk gave Ralph diabetes.

If you are keen on a pet, get one from a shelter, advocates Kalra, who also works for animal liberation. “This way you get to give a loving home to a homeless animal and avoid contributing to the animal breeding industry,” she emphasises.

The Mitras go one step further. While they would be the first to recommend getting home a pet, having had all manner of species from birds to dogs over the years, they urge you to keep in mind your situation in life. If you can’t devote all your time and effort, but still wish to experience the joy of animal company, you could visit an animal shelter off and on. Just a few hours or even minutes with an assortment of homeless and abandoned animals—from dogs and cats to chicken, cows, horses and turkeys—can bring a smile to your face and do wonders for those serotonin levels.

Silver pets

 
What if the animals you bring home to add joy and years to your sunset years end up heading into the sunset themselves? When you have ailing pets, it’s never easy either to witness their suffering or to make the decision to put them down.

The Mitras lost Sweety to a host of complications: pyometra (a disease of the uterus), diabetes, arthritis, and finally kidney failure. Seeing Sweety in misery and being told she had only five more days, the Mitras took the tough call. However, they ensured she had dignity in death, burying her in Pune’s upmarket Salisbury Park, which has a pet cemetery. As if all of dogkind knew, the street dogs of the area communed around Sweety’s grave, commiserating with the couple.

Succession plan

 
Raja and Rani came into the Mahajanis’ lives and household when the patriarch of the family passed away. Initially disturbed, yet knowing that their silver parent would not return, Raja and Rani slowly began settling into the Mahajani household, as they sensed that it was an extension of their original parent’s family.

Taking the reality of ageing pets and pet owners seriously, pet homes around the world offer not just accommodation and care-giving but luxury services as well. In Japan, for instance, nursing homes for ageing pets offer services such as hot spring baths and therapeutic massages. A few retirement communities also have rooms for pet parents who want to move in with their babies. In India though, these are still alien concepts.

If you are not sure who will take care of the pets after you, it’s important to have a succession plan in place. In such an eventuality, Rego points out that it is also vital to set aside money for your pet’s upkeep. Until then though, you and your golden companion can enjoy many golden sunsets together. Woofs and meows to that!

ADVANTAGE PET PARENTS

  • Silvers with heart conditions who own pets tend to outlive those who don’t
  • Walking a dog provides much-needed physical exercise, which leads to improved mobility and a healthier lifestyle overall
  • The ability to have something to pet or touch can result in lower blood pressure, normal heart rate and reduced stress
  • Pets provide emotional stability during stressful situations, helping to reduce anxiety and depression
  • Caring for a pet helps increase the self-confidence and self-esteem of silvers, providing them a way to feel useful and responsible for something
  • Animals can be soothing to those who have difficulty using language
  • Feeding and grooming can help increase the physical skills of silvers and help them become more active
  • Animals can help improve socialisation: they listen without judgement and give unbiased affection, especially when silvers may desire to share the thoughts they may not be comfortable telling family or friends

BEHAVIOURAL TRAITS

Dog behaviour can be puzzling to both new and experienced dog owners. Our canine friends don’t operate with the same motivations as we do, so their actions don’t always make sense to us. Here are some common dog behaviour issues and how to resolve them in your own home.

    • Chewing: Puppies love to chew, especially while they’re teething. That’s because the pressure feels good on raw, sore gums. Also, very young puppies use their mouths to explore their world, tasting as they go. This is natural and unavoidable, so prevention is the best cure for chewing. First, dog-proof your home by moving harmful items—like wires, power cords, cleaning supplies and other small objects—out of your dog’s reach. Then give your puppy or dog acceptable objects to chew. For example, keep plenty of acceptable chew toys on hand.
    • Biting: Biting is a natural part of healthy, friendly puppy play. Puppies learn when and how hard to bite by playing with their littermates. But it’s not a healthy part of puppy play with an owner. Never put up with a puppy biting you. When a biting puppy becomes an adult, her behavioural problems will only become more severe. If your puppy bites you, mimic puppy play by whining pitifully. Then replace your hand with a chew toy. Lavish praise on your puppy when it bites the toy. If your puppy keeps biting you, stand up and stop playing with it.
    • Jumping: Jumping is a dog’s natural expression of happiness. But it’s not pleasant for guests entering your home. Train your dog to jump only when you permit, via a signal that you give your dog. Correct dogs immediately when they are about to jump. Praise them when all four paws are back on the ground.
    • Soiling in the house: Even dogs that are housebroken make mistakes occasionally. It can happen for a variety of reasons. For example, if dogs have a physical problem, like a urinary tract or parasite infection, they’ll lose control of their bladder. Some dogs temporarily lose control of their bladders when they become excited, feel threatened or are scared. Dogs also mark their territory with urine. So if they believe their territory has been invaded, they may incite territorial marking. Dogs may also make mistakes in the house because of separation anxiety. If they’re left alone in the house for long periods, and soiling is accompanied by other destructive behaviour, separation anxiety is a likely cause. To fix soiling in the house, first identify the cause of the behaviour and then alter the environment so that your dog won’t repeat the behaviour.
    • Whining or crying: Whining is another form of canine communication. Dogs are trying to communicate that they need something; perhaps they want to go outside or they’re hungry. If dogs get what they want by whining, they’ll learn that whining produces a favoured response from the owner. If dogs see that if they whine, they get a nice long walk, they will whine to get one every time. To break the cycle, ignore whining for superfluous attention at all costs. Reward them when the whining has stopped for over three seconds.
    • Source: www.everydayhealth.com

    CANINE CAREGIVING

    Hot springs, meals served in private rooms, therapeutic massages and chauffeur services—these are just examples of the care on offer at nursing homes for pets that are springing up across Japan. “The reality is that good nutrition and better healthcare are extending the lifespan of not just Japan’s elderly folk, but their pets as well,” Akira Watanabe of Tokyo Pet Home, set up in 2015, tells website www.straitstimes.com.

    And as of last October, over 560 dogs and cats were enrolled in pet homes in the country, which number over 150 now. As the website reports, around 40 per cent of the cases Tokyo Pet Home handles are pets in need of extra care because of age or illness. The remainder are there because their owners are in poor health or unable to cope with caring for them. There’s another notable category: ‘disaster victim pets’,
    pets separated from their owners after natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Other reasons for the rising need for pet homes, according to the website, are relocation of owners overseas or to an apartment where pets are not allowed, as well as behavioural issues that lead to complaints from neighbours.

    CLICK HAPPY

    “You don’t get to choose the animal; they choose you!” says Bhavesh Karia, a pet photographer based in Mumbai, whose studio is named Pawtraits. Excerpts from a conversation:

    Describe your work as a pet photographer….

    I shoot portraits of pets or babies, as I call them, either with their parents or alone. I shoot indoor as well as outdoors. Indoors is much easier as outside the distractions for them are many.

    How long does a shoot take? Also, how do you get them to pose?

    It takes about an hour to three. My set-up is minimal. Posing? I typically manage with a treat or a ball. I usually check with the parent beforehand to know what will work with the baby. I try to capture the eyes of the animal, as they are the windows to the soul.

    Do you have silver clients?

    Not yet. Pet photography is still a growing field. It’s a great way for silvers to capture their special moments with their precious baby or babies.

    DIY PET ACCESSORIES

    Rope leash

    There is something rustic and earthen about ropes; their anachronistic style will lend a certain poise and sophistication to your fluff puff. You need a dye bath (a packet of powder dye, hot and cold water), white cotton rope (3 feet-plus length you want for your leash), rope clamps, fabric and a snap hook from an old leash. Start by making a dye bath and dipping your rope into it, try dipping only parts of the rope for a multicoloured pattern. Once dry, thread one end through the snap hook of your previously owned leash, loop it back around and secure it with a rope clamp. A similar process at the other end of the leash will require you to make a bigger loop fastened with another rope clamp. Cover the metallic rope clamps by neatly wrapping the fabric around, tied and glued for added strength. Hook it onto your pet’s collar and let him show off!

    No-sew bow tie

    Notice the spring in your fuzz’s each step, deliberate and charming, with the addition of a snazzy bow tie. You need fabric, scissors, ribbon and Velcro. Cut your fabric to about 4×9 inches (the standard size for a bow tie; beef up the size for a larger pet). Fold the top and the bottom of the fabric in, so they overlap slightly, do the same with the sides, keeping the overlap minimal. Pinch the centre of the fabric to get the bow-tie shape and tie a thin strip of ribbon, around 2×5 cm, to the centre of the bow. Cut another part of ribbon that will go around your pet’s neck. Grab your Velcro; stick the scratchy side of Velcro to the centre and to the far right end of the ribbon. On the back of the left side, stick the fuzzy end and add another fuzzy part of Velcro to the back of the bow tie. Stick the bow to the centre of the ribbon, attach the ends together and your heartbreaker is dressed to kill.

    Upcycled pet bed

    Turn an old drawer, side table, wooden crate, old television console, suitcase, picnic basket or a wine crate into a cosy repurposed bed for your darling. The least cumbersome is to turn your old bedside table upside down so the legs point up. Get an old, favourite pillow of your dog and stuff it into the space between the legs. Pin the cushion sides into the table or glue the cushion to the table to keep it fastened. You could even cut the cushion into a size that will fit perfectly into the space; we leave it to you.

    MORE IDEAS…

    1. If you have an old shirt lying about, you can dress your pet up for work! Just sever the collar from the top of the shirt; make sure the button of the collar is right at the top and that it has a collar stand.
    2. You could also fasten a tie around your pet’s neck and go the dapper way. Definitely a pick-me-up for those dreary Monday mornings.

    PET PIN-UPS

    We dug through the Harmony Archives to pull out images of these adorable pets that brought our cover features alive

    Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
    April 2018